Richard Thompson has one of those faces that immediately makes you want to smile. His jovial personality and his strong handshake endear me to him. As we make our way to a nearby coffee shop to conduct my interview, he bombards me with questions about my schooling and plans. As we settle into the shop, I start to set up while he waits out the long morning rush of caffeine and sugar.
He comes back with two hot cups of black coffee and a plate piled with morning pastries. As I sip my black coffee, he heads over to the creamer bar. “You’re stronger than I am,” he says as I decline any sugar or creamer. Working as a barista for a long number of years has toughened my palate.
It feels easy to transition from our small talk into the interview. Speaking with Richard is much like having a conversation with a friend. Rather than read from a long list of questions, I have a few starters, then let him tell me his story.
Can you tell me a little about your backstory?
I’m a third generation Oregonian, my grandfather and grandmother came to Oregon in about 1900 and started a farm just outside of Dayton. Small farms in that part of Oregon meant a small dairy, we had 150 acres we farmed. The Depression had a big impact on our family. My father, who had a great interest in radio engineering, found himself staying there to farm. Education opportunities didn’t come about for him. I was born 1945, my 70th birthday is coming up in a few weeks.
I don’t farm anymore. My dad died in 2005, and at that point the kind of farming that he had been doing, that Oregon style of small agriculture, just didn’t work anymore. He sold land to people who have now created filbert orchards and things like that. We [his wife and himself] have the two and half acres. I live in the middle of an industrial agricultural park. In 2011, my wife Kimberly and I decided to make a permanent move to Dayton [from upstate New York]. The extent of farming now for is a small garden that I can manage. I had a studio in Oregon for many years through the late 80s through the 90s. I spent a lot of time quietly working here, I didn’t show a whole lot, but I kept that connection in Oregon. So when we decided to come back it was an easy decision to make.
I started college at Oregon State in 1963. I discovered the visual arts soon after that time. I would come to Portland, and though I know it sounds impossible to believe, it was the most difficult thing in the world to find a cup of coffee in Portland in 1963. You could look forever. Fountain Gallery was the main gallery in Portland at that time, from what I remember. I would make pilgrimages to visit there. That was my first introduction to contemporary painting and sculpture.
Over the years, coming back to Portland, watching it all change and grow has made quite an impression on me. I’ve watched Portland grow from a small city related to the timber industry and agriculture interest in small scale manufacturing to a city that is not one of the five most popular cities in the United States. Portland in a way is still a mystery to me in some ways. I don’t feel like I’ve gained that insight that I like to have with cities.
Are there certain places that you like to go outdoors? People that you go with?
I [fly] fish all the time. Fly fishing for me, for trout, when I was young, was an activity that was very part a part of a community. And then, as I grew older and pursued it more, it’s become the other part of my life. I’ve met wonderful people, I’ve met life-long friends on streams and lakes. It’s my door to nature, in a way. When I’m fishing, I fish both lakes and streams, it’s about everything else that happens that day. One day I saw a display of aerial combat between an eagle and an osprey that I’ll never forget. It was amazing. When I fished Idaho last fall, coming across a family of moose that had moved into an area around Silver Creek, and one young giant moose that became interested in me. It kept walking to me, it wouldn’t leave me alone. At the end of the day, it’s about the personal relationships. My current fishing partner is a twenty-eight year old chef. I met her when she was a chef in a small restaurant, and she used to ask me, gee I’d like to learn. I’ve had people ask me forever, oh can I go fishing with you, can I learn? And I would say, no, no, leave me alone. But her request struck me as quite different. We started fishing together last year, and we’ve had some great times together. Her husband has joined us on some trips. It’s a way for me to make new friends.
Can you tell about your teaching experience?
I left Oregon State University in 1965, because at that time they didn’t have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I had some creative interest, [so] it was recommended that I go to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I drove with all my worldly possessions to New Mexico in the winter of 1965. I fell in love with New Mexico. I graduated from there, finished my Masters degree in painting, and then I stayed and lived in New Mexico until 1980. I lived there and worked as an artist. In the 1980s, I moved to Texas. I was asked to teach at the University of Texas, San Antonio. At that time, they brought in visiting artists for their graduate program, and it was a great opportunity for me. I embraced it, I jumped on it. That led to being invited to teach at the University of Texas in Austin. I ended up being in Austin for fifteen years. It was during that time that I kept a studio in Oregon. I never fell in love with the landscape in Texas. I had an idea that if I were to leave there, I wanted to go to a school of art, and if there was a school of art in a rural setting that’s what I wanted. I was recruited and hired to be dean of School of Art and Design in Alfred, New York. School of Art and Design at Alfred is the number one ranked graduate ceramics program. What I liked about it is that sticking your hands in dirt, in mud, is an elemental, basic human…historically we started making art [that way]. To run a program so clearly grounded in mud, and then we can build from there. I was Dean there 1997 to 2004.
I took a leave and came back to Oregon in 2004 because my dad was dying. We spent 2005 with him, and he died in 2005. I went back in 2006 to be a professor. I taught painting and drawing, and taught freshman. It was a great opportunity for me. I loved it. I decided in 2010 to retire. I felt that I had done what I could do, in that position at that time. We had done quite a bit of work on our property in Oregon, changing what had once been a farm property into a living situation. But I spent thirty years in academia. At University of Texas, I had a great time. I taught painting, and life drawing, graduate painting…it was really rewarding. Texas just wasn’t the place for me. It didn’t feel [like] home. When we moved to upstate New York, it wasn’t home either, but it was more home-like.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your work?
The American landscape to me that has a visual interest for me are the field patterns, the vast horizons of the American agricultural landscape, often times American farms, the clusters of buildings are like little still-lives that sit out in the middle of nowhere. Like a still-life in the center of the biggest table in the world. A painter chooses, subject matter that provides the painter with painting opportunities. It’s not an arbitrary choice.
I’m an abstract painter in the sense that my paintings are very structurally oriented, my paintings are very built in structure, they’re not what people would call expressionism at all. For me, from 2006 on, I’ve really been interested in the structural opportunities that these American landscapes give me. The horizons, blocks of colors, the ways in which field patterns can be turned into painting patterns, the ways in which the buildings in their still-life quality can be organized. I’m not just painting pictures of rural situations, I’m trying to get somewhere. The question always is, how do you know you did what you wanted to do? Because it’s not a design, you’re not just organizing material for an aesthetic purposes, you also want something else to happen. There are moments in the paintings that I consider to be my better ones where that moment hits with a resonance of memory and connection, where it cuts through the art to the human side of that experience. Not just what it looks like to be at one of these farms, but what it feels like to live in one of those farm clusters, surrounded by those fields.
As a painter, organizing around those colors comes to me easily. To be able to the more subtle aspects of the landscape. In one way, it’s very obvious. Barns are red. But in painting, it’s a red shape, it only references the shapes that you think of with architecture. But in a sense, they’re blocks of color functioning in a very pictorial way in the paintings. It’s the way I structure my visual images. My paintings are not nostalgic or romantic, I’m not looking at the American landscape from the perspective of a romantic or poetic perspective. I’ve driven tractors on those fields for hours at a time, I’ve worked in that barn, I’ve lived in that house. I don’t have illusions about it as being a Bucolic existence. There’s something very existential about being [in the American agricultural landscape]. We know that landscape has a dark edge. I’m aware of that. I’m not celebrating that. The color range I choose in a sense pushes the abstract and pushes the non-romantic side. I don’t think my paintings are sentimental at all. I’ve been doing this for fifty years and I still don’t know how you make a painting that makes someone sit down and look at it. That is a live question. Painting is not dead because I’m not dead. I’m trying to learn everyday how you do this, and still be myself. Still be my own person that likes to go fly fishing and work in my garden.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?
I’m not an ivory tower artist. I don’t embrace and I’m not very interested in many of the stereotypes in American culture of the artist–that artists are disorganized, isolated, not very smart, and fickle. All those negative stereotypes that have unfortunately been so common in American cultural thinking. The basis for those misconceptions goes back to a period of time post-WWII when contemporary art was emerging in the United States. It was primarily an urban experience. The results of so much of that work were not understood. There was the common expression, “Oh, a child could do that.” Even as universities expanded and contemporary artists began to become members of communities, there still remains a misconception of artists as separate. Because I grew up in a small farm community where everybody worked together, I grew up imbued with a sense of community engagement and responsibility. And just because I’m an artist engaged in an intellectual activity, that is not easy to comprehend sometimes, doesn’t mean I’m not also engaged in the issues of my community. I do a lot of community volunteer work, I work on economic development issues, I’m very engaged with getting to know and helping young people in agricultural businesses and business-related opportunities. I think that it’s not just my Oregon heritage, it’s my agricultural Oregon heritage.